The importance of developing Virtual Reality applications

In some respects, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) applications have been around for a couple of decades. But these never really went mainstream because of the cost and limits of existing technology. However, this is starting to change with the recent release of new VR headsets and AR glasses, and the development tools and ecosystems to support them.

At the O’Reilly Design Conference in San Francisco, Jody Medich, director of design for Singularity University Labs, argued that VR and AR are already being developed in mainstream applications, and will play a significant impact in web application development soon. She said, “Developers and designers need to think about how to enable their organizations to use these when they come.” Games are proving to be an early adopter, but more significantly she sees the use of VR in improving travel experience, education, sales, communication, and improved office productivity.

Understand the landscape

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vibe are getting the most press, owing to their high-performance VR rendering in a modestly priced package. Other efforts like Google Goggles have a more cost-efficient option that can bring virtual worlds to high-end smart phones. These are not just being used for games. One surgeon, Dr. Richard Burke at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami was able to use his Google Cardboard to visualize and execute a complex heart surgery quickly that would not have been otherwise possible.

Medich argues that VR is a subset of augmented reality in which a view of the outside world is occluded. High-end AR adds a layer of new information on top of the existing world, which is a little more challenging to line up. Early version of AR involves simply overlaying information from the real world onto real-time maps using GPS. She said, “The reason we don’t think of it that way is because the developer burdens the user with connecting the dots. As a result, the user has to hold all of the function in their brains to make the transition.”

This could be as simple as Uber showing a user nearby cars, or as complex as the rich gaming environment created for Pokémon Go. New interfaces like the Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap are just around the corner, while the Epson Moverio is already being used for high-end industrial applications.

Meanwhile, Google’s Project tango intends to embed better AR capabilities into high-end smart phones like the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. It’s already being used by Wayfair to allow consumers to measure their room, virtually place furniture before purchasing. Medich said this improves customer satisfaction, and reduce returns.

Improving education

VR and AR hold a lot of promise in improving educational experiences of all kinds. Stanford has been doing research with Stryver to allow football players to practice out game plays to improve their muscle memory. Highly specialized doctors are finding that VR makes it easier to bring a much wider audience of students to their operating theaters than is possible in real life. Meanwhile, students in Africa are using Google Goggles to visit places that their schools didn’t otherwise have the budget for.

Airbus is training technicians on how to perform complicated repairs on expensive equipment where it is cheap and safe until they become experts. This has led to a huge improvement in productivity and cost.

It’s not just for teach students either. Amnesty international created a visceral experience of the bombings in Syria that was shown to people on the streets of London. This raised the campaigns contribution rate by 20% in one afternoon.

Reducing the user burden

The real promise of VR and AR lie in reducing the burden of users in connecting the dots between real and virtual worlds. With most GPS applications, users have to do a lot of context switching between application or between applications and the physical world. There is considerable work on building repair applications that guide technicians on complex repairs without having to look away at a physical manual.

Microsoft and Autodesk are working on developing a workflow for the HoloLens that reduces the translation required between property owners, architects, builders, and inspectors. In the traditional workflow, architects must create 2D diagrams that can confuse developers. After a building is approved, builders must translate these diagrams into an actual building. Medich said, “A lot gets lost in the translation. If they build it they can inspect to see if something lines up or not, and then later down the road they have an easier way to fix it.”

AR could also radically transform office apps. Medich noted that the average user can spend hours a day switching contexts with the traditional keyboard and mouse user interface. A new generation of VR enabled office apps could interpret the context of what a user is doing to reduce the number of clicks and keyboard shortcuts required to do office work. She said, “These new technologies do a lot of translation and add something for humans.”

VR and AR are still in their stages, and now is the time for developers to learn more about the technologies and practical implementation. Medich said, “It is not too late to get started. We still have a couple of years until saturation. The next couple of years will be a little disappointing. We are trained to think in linear ways where things change a little gradually. But especially around technology we see a doubling every two years. At first this is disappointing because these changes don’t match up with our linear experience. But when the technology reaches an inflection point then we will see a complete explosion.”

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